Posted on April 18, 2012

Judge: Iowa Hiring Policies Did Not Hurt Blacks

David Pitt and Ryan J. Foley, Bloomberg Businessweek, April 17, 2012

Iowa’s state government employment policies have not discriminated against black employees and job applicants, a judge ruled Tuesday in a case closely watched by civil rights activists.

District Judge Robert Blink issued the ruling after overseeing a trial last fall in the class action lawsuit affecting up to 6,000 applicants who were passed over for jobs and promotions dating back to 2003. He rejected attempts to require Iowa to pay tens of millions in lost wages or change its hiring policies to track and eliminate disparities.

Experts have called the case the largest class-action lawsuit of its kind against a state government’s civil service system, and it tested a legal theory that social science and statistics alone can prove widespread discrimination.

Blink resoundingly rejected what he called an unprecedented claim, saying the evidence did not support the idea that subtle biases were allowed to creep into the hiring process and discriminate against blacks.


In his 56-page ruling, Blink said he was aware of the heavy stakes in the case, including whether blacks were being treated fairly by the state’s largest employer and the potential for millions of dollars in consequences for taxpayers and plaintiffs.

But he said lawyers for the plaintiffs, who urged him to consider the state’s progressive history on civil rights, were asking him to “circumvent clear and timely” U.S. Supreme Court precedent, which would not allow the lawsuit. He said their case failed to challenge a particular employment practice that was discriminatory, an element required under state and federal civil rights laws.

{snip} While some departments may have disparities, he said the data showed that blacks had an advantage compared to whites in others and that the number of black managers had increased over time compared to whites.

Blacks also fare better when applying for public employment in Iowa than the private sector, he said, which could prove that the state’s merit-based system was working to reduce discrimination.


Unlike many other discrimination lawsuits, the plaintiffs did not argue that they faced overt racism or a discriminatory hiring test in Iowa, which is 91 percent white. Instead, their lawyers claimed implicit bias in which managers throughout state government subconsciously favored whites and hurt blacks through their decisions about who got interviewed, hired and promoted. {snip}


Blacks represented 2.9 percent of the state’s population in 2010 and 2.4 percent of the state workforce despite applying for state jobs more often, statistics show.

Lawyers working under Attorney General Tom Miller, a Democrat, had asked Blink to dismiss the case. They called the scope of the lawsuit — it questioned every hiring and promotion decision made at 37 state agencies, involving 20,000 jobs and 500,000 applications — unprecedented. A spokesman for the attorney general’s office had no immediate comment.